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Material Visions: The Poetry and Collage of Leah Goldberg’s Native Landscapes

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 7, Number 1, January 2014
pp. 163-186 | 10.1353/jji.2014.0008

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In a diary entry from 1937, Leah Goldberg, living in Tel Aviv, and generally basking in the warm critical reception afforded upon her arrival in the city two years earlier, makes this offhand speculation: “By the way,” she writes, “why have I recently stopped loving Jesus?”1 Goldberg, a Lithuanian native, was a leading figure of the moderna, the first wave of Hebrew modernist poetry in Palestine, and also a prolific translator from Russian, German, French, and Italian; in addition to nine volumes of poetry, she published several novels, a number of plays, volumes of literary scholarship, journalistic essays, and a series of books for children which have become classics. These works, as well as her diaries, are replete with references to Dante, Petrarch, Dostoevsky, and Rilke, and to art from European museums; the umbilical connection between these exemplars of classical humanism and Christianity is clear in her work, while not always explicitly drawn.

It may come as a surprise to some that a Hebrew poet such as Goldberg would note the discovery of her recent disenchantment with Jesus. What is more remarkable: the sudden self-awareness, revealed as if in passing, that she has “stopped loving” him? Or the logical inference that she had loved him in the first place? Certainly the figure of Jesus played an essential role for modernist Jewish artists—from the more well-known work of Marc Chagall to the ubiquitous fictional and poetic renderings of Jesus in both Hebrew and Yiddish writing, such as the poem by Uri Zvi Greenberg, “Uri tsvi farn tselem” (Uri Zvi on the Cross; 1919), which appeared typographically in the shape of a cross. Greenberg’s poem-tselem is an iconic text in both senses of the term: its visual form capitalizes on the substantive taboo regarding Christianity that still existed within both traditional and newly emergent secular Jewish cultures, and its content references how tropes of martyrdom could be productively motivated within the Jewish national setting.

Indeed, what has been called “the Jewish reclamation of Jesus” surfaced in numerous circumstances.2 These modernists built on the groundwork laid by Moses Mendelsohn’s early invocation of Jesus as connected to Jewish teachings, as well as nineteenth-century distinctions between the historical Jesus who was closely identified as a Jew versus the theological Jesus, a Christian invention. In this context, therefore, Goldberg’s fascination, and subsequent disappointment, with Jesus is part-and-parcel of the modern Jewish renaissance, and anchors her aesthetic enterprise within other contemporaneous movements and trends.

However, in her early poems, it is not Jesus who plays a leading role in the poetic rendering of the Christian-European landscape. Rather, this position is occupied, in multiple and evolving fashion, by the figures of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Goldberg’s variation on the Jesus theme may be understood not only as an exemplary instance of the modern Jewish “reclamation” of Jesus, but more essentially within the broader domain of the relation between literature and the fine arts.3

The relation between text and image was one of modernism’s abiding tensions. Historically, the tension between text and image, between the concrete and the abstract, found expression in myriad forms, with each medium seeking to borrow or mimic salient traits from the other. For example, modernist painting often contained bits of text and letters, while linguistic forms, such as cover art featuring the names of Yiddish literary journals, attempted to acquire the iconic qualities of pictures. An ongoing creative synergy was common among writers and painters living in the same geographic area or cultural moment; for example, Tsiona Tagger, a painter of the Tel Aviv School produced portraits of the poets Greenberg and Avraham Shlonsky in the 1920s. Furthermore, modernist literature often mimicked contemporaneous artistic trends such as impressionism or cubism in an attempt to produce the concrete materiality of painting in language, conventionally considered a temporal medium. International trends such as imagism and acmeism placed a premium on the poetic word as such, and on stylistic practices that somehow produced the effects of the plastic arts.4

Goldberg does not seem to have been interested in the possibilities of language as paint per se, but she...

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